Water, Covid- 19 and Sustainability into the future

Have you ever considered the water that is used in everything you consume on a daily basis?

This is called “hidden, secret or virtual water” as although we don’t see how much water is used to produce the product, water is used in almost every step of the production process. So, if we are serious about taking real action to save water, we need to consider both our direct and indirect water use through what we consume.

March is National Water month and is a topic that the GSSS/Water Explorer South Africa programme schools have integrated into classroom teaching for years. Water is a particularly worrying issue for South Africans, having has firsthand experience in a 5-year drought. This, together with the unravelling climate crisis has contributed to increased water insecurity across our region that will continue unless we don’t start to change our practices. Water Explorer schools have been supported to implement projects around wetland rehabilitation, rainwater harvesting, water auditing, estimating daily to yearly water use at schools and instituting grey water collection. Beyond direct water savings, they have also focussed on improving school grounds by planting water-wise indigenous plants and eradicating water-thirsty alien invasive plant species.

The Context

The Covid-19 outbreak highlighted a number of environmental justice shortcomings in SA, and once again access to water came out tops. For example, many schools do not have access to safe water let alone a host of taps for regular handwashing. This provided not just a challenge but an opportunity to seek low tech, cost-effective and appropriate solutions for keeping hands clean. While all schools are provided with costly sanitisers, tippy taps, a system of 2-litre bottles with drainage holes, is a proven, simple, cost-effective and water-saving way to provide more opportunities for learners to wash their hands. On average washing hands under a running tap uses 40 times more water than a tippy tap.

One of the participating children said, “We worked out that we would need 720,000 litres to keep the hands clean of 600 learners three times per day at our school for one year. With tippy taps, the school would only need an equivalent 15,000 litres per year instead!”

The numbers and hypothesis

Teachers’ knowledge on indirect water savings and health have also been supported through the GSSS/Water Explorer programme. In response to the well-received GSSS Covid and Environment education workshops, geared for teachers, schools requested further workshops to learn more about how diet and lifestyle factors can contribute to our quality of life and how we protect ourselves from getting sick during the pandemic as well as protect our planet.

They were surprised to learn that out of every 100 people in SA who have died as a result of covid, 73% had other co-morbidities and over 50% of these had Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Type 2 is a lifestyle disease mainly caused by a poor diet of saturated animal fats and processed food. In a time when we have so little control over this pandemic, surely, we should take ownership over the things we can control like our diet.

Over 17 workshops in 2020 were implemented that looked at the stats and figures of co-morbidities and also explained the basic pathology behind different diet-related diseases such as diabetes 2, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Teachers were horrified when they realised how easy it is to consume a modern diet of hidden sugars, fats and other processed foods. “Our taste buds”, one lady commented, “have developed an addiction for the processed and unnatural foods”.

Animal products, it was concluded are not only devastating for the environment with huge water and carbon footprints but in excess, they are detrimental to our health. Whole food plants like grains, leafy greens “imifinos”, vegetables and fresh fruit provide all the essential nutrients with none of the cholesterol and added glucose. “It is empowering to know that the easily accessible and cheap foods like spinach, cabbage, beans, sweet potatoes are the best foods we can put on our plates,” added Youth Mavundla, “we really have no excuse for not eating more healthily”.

A word from the wise

Bawinile Mkhize from the Provincial DBE said “It so simple, eat plant-based food and you can take better control over your immunity and lifestyle diseases. I know many friends and family members who have diabetes and heart conditions and when I look at their diet I can understand why. We really need to be teaching the children about healthy nutrition. Sometimes older people are more resistant to change but I am going to do things differently from now on and incorporate local season vegetables and Mnfino in our meatless meals.”

Sthembile Tshabalala a teacher at Kwangubeni Primary school commented, “I found the information on nutrition particularly interesting. It brought back forgotten knowledge systems and the value of an immune-boosting; nutritional plant-based diet found in plants that grow in our gardens.” She went onto say that teachers had now felt empowered to protect themselves. “Thank you for helping us to be proactive to protect ourselves, to save water, and bring back our culture”.

All in all, the message is simple for water month and beyond: eat more plant-based food, exercise moderately, sleep well and enjoy life. Your body and the planet will reward your efforts.

The One Planet Water Explorer programme supports 25 schools in KZN, with hands-on, in-classroom lessons on environmental and climate-crisis related issues. Linked to the learning is the doing: for every lesson/issue addressed we work on developing realistic small-scale action projects to help the school tackle the problem.

The Programme which is also part of UNEP’s “Global Search for Sustainable Schools Programme” and is supported by the Ministry of Environment, Japan and the HCI Foundation and is implemented by the African Conservation Trust

HCI Foundation believes that protecting our environment today is protecting the future.

This piece was prepared by the African Conservation Trust – Water Explorer South Africa as part of HCI Foundation #HCIF_Reflective_Practice.1 initiative that encourages organisations and individuals to reflects on their contribution towards building a thriving South Africa for everyone.

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